An instructive tale of the perks of life on the clattering government-quango gravy train was shared by Ofqual’s head honcho Sally Collier a few years back.
In an interview to mark her first 12 months as Chief Regulator of the powerful organisation, she revealed that, despite her £200,000 pay package, she was required to commute from her home in Norfolk to its head office near Coventry city centre only three days per week.
On the remaining two work days, Collier told the Times Educational Supplement (TES), she liked to go ‘out and about’. Even when she made it to the modern HQ, where roughly 200 staff chew through an annual budget of £17.5 million running the nation’s exam and qualification system, every step was taken to make her surroundings as salubrious as possible.
‘Her office — which former Ofqual chair and new Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman had painted green for her — and the yellow daffodils on her desk make for a calming environment,’ the TES interviewer noted.
Then she quoted Collier, who explained: ‘It is the colour of my football team, Norwich City. I don’t see Norfolk very much, which is why I like to have the green and yellow here, to remind me of home.’
GUY ADAMS: Under Sally Collier’s stewardship, Ofqual has just presided over the most appalling farce in the history of our education system
The little things are, of course, what count. Yet just like her beloved football team, recently relegated after achieving one of the worst points tallies in the history of the Premier League, events have conspired to leave the extravagantly paid career civil servant very short of fans.
For under Collier’s stewardship, Ofqual — known formally as the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation — has just presided over the most appalling farce in the history of our education system: creating the hopelessly flawed system for awarding A-levels that was junked on Monday having thrown the life and career plans of tens of thousands of young Britons into disarray.
Collier ignored repeated warnings in recent months from statisticians, trade unions, educationalists and even a House of Commons committee that Ofqual’s so-called algorithm — designed to award fair grades to pupils who had not sat exams because of Covid — was completely unfit for purpose.
Even when her education peers in Scotland were forced to junk their own equivalent system, amid public outrage, Collier refused to concede that her pet system, which saw nearly 40 per cent of A-level marks downgraded and disgracefully penalised intelligent children from deprived backgrounds, might be similarly shambolic.
And according to Secretary of State Gavin Williamson, when the Department for Education ‘raised a number of issues’ concerning potential problems with Ofqual’s method for calculating grades, the quango ‘constantly assured’ the department’s staff that nothing would possibly go wrong.
Of course, things went very wrong indeed. At which point Collier performed an extraordinary disappearing act. In common with every single Ofqual employee — aside from two beleaguered receptionists — she was absent from its Coventry HQ on Monday as angry students marched in the streets, and missing from the airwaves too.
GUY ADAMS: Collier had been joined at the head of the quango by chairman Roger Taylor, the other key player in this week’s catastrophe. He is a 54-year-old father-of-two, who is said to be obsessed by data and who played a leading role in introducing the flawed algorithm
Staff in her communications team — who had failed to answer phone calls or respond to emails as the farce unfolded over the weekend — instead put out an apologetic statement from Roger Taylor, Ofqual’s chairman, who is paid £45,000-a-year for working two days per week.
The statement said the quango was ‘extremely sorry’ and accepted it had ’caused real anguish and damaged public confidence’. Collier’s apparent absence from the front line during one of the worst crises in the history of her organisation is said to be one reason Williamson declined to declare in interviews yesterday that he still had confidence in her leadership.
For while the buck must always stop with ministers — and may shortly derail Mr Williamson’s own career — this week’s calamity can only reinforce Downing Street’s determination that, in the words of Boris Johnson’s adviser Dominic Cummings, a ‘hard rain’ is going to fall on incompetently run sections of our public sector. In the case of Collier, the warning signs were there all along.
Before her appointment in 2016 — she was chosen from 13 applicants by then Education Secretary Nicky Morgan — the 57-year-old was quizzed by the Education Select Committee, who pointed out that she had no previous experience in education.
The committee accepted her CV suggested she was ‘competent enough to lead a large and complex organisation’, but added she had ‘some way to go’ to understand the ‘qualifications and curriculum landscape’ in education and ‘did not, in our view, give sufficient voice to the weight of responsibility borne by a chief regulator.
‘Her knowledge of the current reforms to GCSEs and A-levels was somewhat lacking, and she was unable to answer questions on subject comparability,’ MPs noted.
Despite their misgivings, she sailed into the highly paid role, crowning a 25-year career that had begun when, in her own words, she ‘fell into’ the civil service in 1992 after her father told her to get a ‘proper job’.
Within a year of arriving at Ofqual, Collier — who married her husband Alan in 2005 and is believed to have a son who is starting secondary school — had plunged into controversy amid a furious row over the alleged inflation of A-level grades.
Undermining a new system designed by Michael Gove to drive up standards and end the curse of relentless annual grade inflation, she intervened in 2017 to artificially lower the marks required for students to secure top grades, declaring: ‘I want the message to be that students have done fantastically well. All our kids are brilliant.’
To critics, the remark displayed an extraordinary lack of understanding of the purpose of exams, namely to establish which students are brilliant and which are not. ‘It is quite ridiculous that a quarter of children are getting A and A* grades at A-level,’ was the stern verdict at the time of leading educationalist Professor Alan Smithers, of Buckingham University.
‘The whole point was to make the exams harder and identify the most able kids who could then thrive at top universities, not to perpetuate a broken system in which nearly all get prizes.’
GUY ADAMS: Within a year of arriving at Ofqual (pictured: office in Coventry), Collier — who married her husband in 2005 and is believed to have a son who is starting secondary school — had plunged into controversy amid a furious row over the alleged inflation of A-level grades
The following year, Ofqual nonetheless pulled a similar trick with GCSEs. By this point, Collier had been joined at the head of the quango by chairman Roger Taylor, the other key player in this week’s catastrophe.
He is a 54-year-old father-of-two, who is said to be obsessed by data and who played a leading role in introducing the flawed algorithm. Yet Taylor ironically once admitted to messing up his own A-levels, decades before his organisation did the same thing for a generation of sixth formers.
Luckily, he enjoyed considerably more privilege than the average student affected by this year’s debacle, having been educated at The King’s School in Canterbury, a 1,400-year-old institution where fees are up to £13,000 a term and more than 81 per cent of pupils gain A* to B grades.
In an interview with the TES, Taylor admitted he had not studied hard enough, but that he was given a ‘second chance’ by passing the entrance exam to Oxford University, where he studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics.
A passionate jazz pianist, he went on to complete a master’s degree in economics at London University before becoming a correspondent at the Financial Times. He cut short his journalism career, however, to co-found the multi-million pound health analytics firm Dr Foster Intelligence, which launched the controversial Good Hospital Guide in 2001.
The publication compared mortality data for every hospital in the country — putting great pressure on trusts to account for their figures. But its methodology was criticised in some quarters, with hospitals complaining their results were misrepresented.
The company courted controversy again in 2006 when the Department for Health bought 50 per cent of it for £12million. The ministry was accused of overpaying after it was revealed the deal went through without a competitive tender.
Dr Foster was later bought out by Australian telecoms giant Telstra for an estimated £25million in 2015, with Taylor resigning as director but staying on as a consultant.
Taylor, whose children both finished school in recent years, lives with his wife Elizabeth Stubbs, 55, a school governor, in a £700,000 house in Sidmouth, Devon.
On top of working two days per week for Ofqual, he runs the government’s Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, an initiative to harness the power of data.
With supreme irony, given recent events, he led a study at the centre last year which concluded that algorithms had the potential to cause ‘real harm’, especially when they are making ‘important decisions about people’s lives’.
What was obvious to him then evidently wasn’t so clear this spring when, following the cancellation of formal exams due to Covid-19, Ofqual cooked up its plan to grade this year’s crop of school students using a specially designed algorithm.
As early as March, the Royal Statistical Society offered to nominate two distinguished experts to Ofqual’s technical advisory group that would create and road-test the all-important system. However, the quango promptly insisted they sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement that would bar them from public comment on the model for five years.
Since that contradicted the Society’s commitment to transparency and public trust, the offer of help was withdrawn. The following month, when the new algorithm system was announced, a raft of experts predicted that it would harm students from poorer backgrounds.
‘We are disappointed that more has not been done to recognise the impact that these changes will have on disadvantaged students,’ said University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady. ‘Without action, these groups are likely to be even more under-represented.’
Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at Exeter University said: ‘The worry is that, unintentionally, teachers will underestimate sometimes the academic potential of poorer pupils, particularly those from black backgrounds.’
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), agreed, saying: ‘Middle-class people sometimes underestimate working-class people . . .’ And so on.
In July, the Commons Education Select Committee also issued a stern warning, saying the algorithm risked ‘inaccuracy and bias against young people from disadvantaged backgrounds’ and calling on the quango to publish full details of their methodology before releasing results, so experts could flag any potential pitfalls.
But Collier thought she knew best. She declared the system ‘absolutely the fairest possible in the circumstances’ and in a letter to students, insisted that ‘our overriding aim is to be fair’.
On that basis, her performance has of course been one of abject failure. Whether she and Taylor — not to mention Ofqual’s other A-grade bunglers who have presided over this appalling farce — will keep their lucrative jobs remains to be seen.